Stories from Alaska

An insider's journey through Alaska's best kept secrets

Four World-Class Alaska Adventures: From Hiking to Birding, Rafting to Sea Kayaking

Adventure travelers zero in on Alaska year after year, and rightly so. America’s 49th state delivers every time when it comes to bigger, bolder versions of popular pastimes and larger-than-life, only-in-Alaska experiences. For those travelers who are amped up for adrenaline-filled, athletic excursions as well as some slower-paced-but-equally-exciting outings, there’s a practically an endless lineup of ways to find memorable moments in Alaska. Here are just a few of the more unique, world-class opportunities for adventure Alaska has to offer.

Happy Hiking!

When daydreaming about adventure in Alaska, it’s practically impossible not to envision majestic mountains and snowcapped peaks.

Alaska is a hotbed for hikers with its multitude of hiking trails offering something for all levels of fitness and outdoor acumen from short, low-altitude quickies to long leg-and-lung-burning climbs. Almost all hiking itineraries provide unforgettable views: dense forest, wildlife like moose, bears and eagles, more and more mountains, even cityscapes.

Many of Alaska’s best and most popular hikes are within short drives of urban areas: Flattop in Anchorage, Granite Tors in Fairbanks, the Bodenburg Butte in the Mat-Su Valley, Mt. Roberts in Juneau, and Mt. Marathon in Seward. And some of the most accessible and easy to navigate hiking trails are literally in urban areas at popular alpine and cross-country ski trails – Birch Hill in Fairbanks, Kincaid Park and Hilltop Ski Area in Anchorage, Mt. Alyeska in Girdwood and Eaglecrest Ski Area in Juneau.

Two of Alaska’s most popular and famous hikes, Flattop and Mt. Marathon, couldn’t be more different, other than the fact that they both loom over their respective towns.

Flattop is a short drive into the Chugach Mountains from Anchorage. Because of that proximity, its amazing views (of Anchorage, Sleeping Lady Mountain, Cook Inlet and at times even Denali), its relatively short duration, many turnaround points, and its, well, funky flat summit, Flattop is a popular hike that draws travelers and locals all year round. That doesn’t make it’s just an easy hike. There are steep stair climbs and a final rocky pitch that can challenge any hikers that don’t take them seriously. Some are content to just make it to the top while others like to do a loop around Blueberry Hill in Flattop’s shadow or do an out and back to the false summit and call it a day. Still others are perfectly fine walking around the parking lot trail head, enjoying the vantage point while taking photos of so much beauty below and Flattop above.

View from Flattop overlooking Anchorage.

Meanwhile, Seward’s Mt. Marathon is a straight-up hiking beast – crazy steep, covered with razor-sharp scree, thick brush and thorny plants, slippery small rocks, and year-round snow chutes, among many other tough facets. Yet, there’s a strong draw to ascend to the peak: the challenge of conquering it, the million-dollar view from the peak, the unparalleled leg day workout, and even being part of Alaska Mt. Marathon hiking history. Alaska practically stops on July 4 every year to watch hundreds of the state’s most hardcore mountain runners race from downtown Seward to the top of Mt. Marathon and back. It’s as wild as it sounds. And even wilder are the race’s origins. This event began based on a bar bet in which one Sourdough challenged another that they couldn’t make it to the top and back in an hour or less. That guy didn’t make it as it turns out, but these days, many racers beat that hour mark. When mere mortals eyeball Mt. Marathon standing tall above the town, it is pretty hard to fathom going all the way to the top and then getting back down in an hour. Yet for the brave and fit, Mt. Marathon is a classic, all-time Alaska hiking experience. Bring lots of water and plan to make a day of it, but don’t let the bravado of legends overcome necessary caution.

Trail for Mount Marathon.

Fortunately, for hikers in Alaska, there are practically as many Alaska hiking and trail digital and print guides available as there are hikes, so hardcore hikers can get the scoop long before even arriving. There are also many Alaska outfitters that can help hikers prepare for their trips, from shoes and socks, bear mace and backpacks, as well as offering on site trail guide services.

The Wonders of Birding and Bird Watching

Alaska birding is world renown. Big-time birders and amateur avian enthusiasts flock to Alaska each summer, practically following the migratory paths of the seemingly countless birds from around the world.

Even amateurs can spot Alaska’s fine-feathered stars. In the heart of the Golden Heart City, Fairbanks, is Creamer’s Field, where thousands of majestic cranes join geese, ducks and a hundred other types of birds who put on a spectacular display all summer long. They fuel up and rest up under the Midnight Sun before, like clockwork as the sun begins to disappear, they head south again.

In downtown Anchorage, Westchester Lagoon is an urban birding paradise and a perfect place to picnic while birdwatching. On the south end of town, Potter Marsh is a popular spot to spy a variety of unique birds, large and small. There are bird sanctuaries, refuges and other birding hot spots across the state, and just about any coastal town in Southeast Alaska and along the Kenai Peninsula from Seward to Homer will offer primetime seacoast and migratory bird sightings. To get the biggest bang for the birding buck, be sure to book a stay during the birding festivals in Cordova and other Alaska destinations that bring birders together for friendship and fun.

You don’t have to be a bird expert to enjoy seeing beautiful birds in Alaska. Just travel around the state and you’re sure to see something interesting: the peculiar puffin is a cool and common sight on just about any open water cruise; the even more peculiar ptarmigan is found all over the state, clucking and strutting seemingly carefree; and it’s always exciting to see the big and bold eagles, which are found perched or flying across the state, from Alaska’s big towns to middle-of-nowhere stands of trees and shorelines. Just don’t forget your binoculars!

Playful puffin.

Spectacular Sea Kayaking

Sea kayaking out of one of Alaska’s many fantastic port towns – Sitka, Whittier, Valdez, Homer, and many pretty points in between – is an aquatic adventure on so many levels.

There’s the actual kayaking – working those arms, shoulders, back and core to glide your craft to sensational sea locations. There are the rest breaks – when paddles are pulled from the water for a moment and there’s the calmest of Alaska calm, when the only sound you hear is the waves clapping against your kayak, the occasional squawk of waterfowl, and maybe even a splash of a leaping salmon. There’s the scenery – beautiful beaches, mega-mountains, glimmering glaciers, cool coves and even a waterfall or two. And then there’s the wildlife – otters and seals, porpoises and, if you’re lucky, whales. And if you’re really lucky, orcas!

Alaska Wilderness Sea Kayaking Adventure

Sea kayaking is such an accessible pastime, with many outfitters and guides in every town, each offering different kayaking tours that feature their Alaska region’s “best of the best”. Just don’t forget to wear your flotation devices. Alaska’s glacier-fed waters are beautiful, but also literally lethally cold, and anyone sporting around Alaska’s seas, streams, lakes and ponds should exercise caution, sensibility, and personal protection. You can pick a day kayaking trip or take a overnighter, camping under the stars. Or you might enjoy a multiday trip accessing rarely explored areas by hiring a water taxi operator and/or guide to take to you to extra-special places like glaciers, deserted islands, old World War II military relics, and more. Whether traveling by kayak either solo or with guides, you’re in for an aquatic adventure in Alaska!

Spencer Lake Kayaking – Alaska Railroad day trip with Ascending Path.

Riveting River Rafting

If you love water but seek some wilder water adventures, grab a paddle and hop onboard a guided float trip or whitewater rafting tour and get some serious Alaska rafting action.

There are many rafting operators and options in and around Denali Park, along the Kenai Peninsula, and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. All offer literal thrills and chills – as in, riding on a raging water roller-coaster of glacial and snow melt. Paddling hard through a series of rapids and catching a splash of icy water on your face will have you screaming and laughing with excitement. And there are just enough calm stretches to catch your breath and breathe in the scenery that’s as wild as the water you’re riding on. Don’t worry – all riders are equipped with wet suits and personal floatation devices, and all rafts are guided by professionals who know the rivers and how to take care of their paddlers.

Canyon Run Whitewater Rafting in Denali

One especially unique rafting ride is a rafting day tour out of Anchorage. You take a short-but-scenic trip south along Turnagain Arm on the Alaska Railroad to the whistlestop at Spencer Glacier. The train trip there is amazing in itself with its views of mountains, waterfalls, wildlife and, of course, glaciers but the raft ride back is the best part. You’ll paddle right near Spencer Glacier and the numerous icebergs floating around it, then take a smooth and easy float trip down the Placer River to a nearby railroad stop, where you’ll be picked up for the train ride back to Anchorage. This is the perfect Alaska rafting day trip!

Glacier Discovery on Spencer Lake, an Alaska Railroad day excursion.

Whether you like the tranquility of birding, the zen of hiking or the thrills of sea kayaking and whitewater rafting, you’ll find high-flying adventure abounds EVERYWHERE in Alaska. Come find it